As I walked through the old park, icebound and solitary, I evoked the past with my fellow spectre. With eyes deadened, and lips softened, our voices could barely be heard. Was the Cannes film festival really that long ago? Has hope fled, vanquished, toward the gloomy skies?
Ah, the fine days of unspeakable joy! From the vantage point of my present post-Cannes haze, it can be hard to recall the ecstasies of old, when the sky was blue, and our hopes were great. The festival is a time of heightened passions, of stakes raised. It is one of the few genuine aesthetic arenas left in the world, where the whims of those assembled in its auditoriums can elevate a film to greatness, or, alternatively, when the disfavour of critical minds can cast a work to abyssal perdition – no matter the pedigree of its directors, actors and financial backers.
And of all the coronation mechanisms that Cannes has at its disposal, between the fervour of the public, the acclaim of critics and the plethora of awards dished out by the festival’s myriad juries, none matches the festival’s grand prix itself: not, that is to say, its actual “Grand prix” (which is essentially the runner-up prize), but the coveted Palme d’or. And, indeed, most years the festival world’s supreme accolade is bestowed upon a worthy recipient – this in spite of the haphazard nature of the decision-making process, with the competition’s fate held in the hands of a nine-person jury whose members are plucked from various branches of the cinema tree. If we trawl through this decade’s haul of palms, we may quarrel over whether Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatphong Weerasethakul, 2010), The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011), Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012), La Vie d’Adèle: chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) or Kis uykusu (Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014) really were the finest films of the competition in the years in which they scooped up the main prize – without exception, they had challengers that could also stake a legitimate claim to Cannes glory. But who, in all honesty, can deny that these works number among the pinnacles of 21st century cinema, and will continue to be seen as such in decades to come?
Alas, the same can not be said for the film that was awarded this year’s Palme d’or. To be frank, crowning Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan was a mystifying decision from the jury, which was this year presided over by the bicephalous creature that goes by the name of the Coen Brothers. In all the frenzied media speculation about potential prize-winners in the lead-up to the awards ceremony – which, in time-honoured fashion, begins in earnest with the announcement of the competition line-up several weeks before the beginning of the festival, and builds in intensity as each competition title makes its bow on the Croisette, before reaching fever pitch on the last weekend of the festival, in anticipation of the Sunday evening announcement (ironically most festival-goers have physically left Cannes by this point, but this does not dampen their febrile conjecture) – in all this speculation, then, I did not once hear Audiard’s name bandied around as a favourite for the palm. In the wake of its near-unanimous critical adulation, Todd Haynes’ Carol appeared to have the inside-running, while other films also had their proponents: Sorrentino’s fans (he does, it seems, have them) were quietly confident this would be the year he came home with the trophy for Youth, the more purist cinephiles were holding out for a surprise run from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Nie Yinniang (The Assassin), and those wishing for a fresh entry into the Pantheon had their hopes pinned on debut-feature Sauls fia (Son of Saul) by the Hungarian László Nemes. In spite of the strong French presence in this year’s competition (five titles in all, plus both the opening and closing night films), few were predicting a victory for the host nation, not least because two of the last three palms had gone to films made in the Hexagon. Would Cannes really dare to engage in another bout of cinematic self-congratulation? Of course, like all good regimes, those in power on the Côte d’Azur – namely, ebullient director Thierry Frémaux, and president Pierre Lescure, succeeding Gilles Jacob after the latter’s decades-long stint at the helm of the festival – can exercise a healthy degree of plausible deniability: the decision was not theirs to make, but that of an indisputably independent, impartial, equanimous panel of jurors. Who are we, then, to take umbrage at this process?
There remains the fact that Dheepan was an inauspicious choice for Palme d’or, a relatively minor film from an unexceptional filmmaker, who would doubtless have been better served had his earlier Un prophète (A Prophet) received the prize back in 2009 (unfortunately, that film was up against Cannes juggernaut Michael Haneke’s Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon]). This is not to say that Audiard’s latest film is particularly bad per se, more that it is a middling work, devoid of any remarkable features – and this, one would think, in the cauldron of hype that is Cannes, is what should have consigned it to a form of cinematic purgatory, overshadowed by the more noticeable triumphs and flops that hoover up most of the festival’s available attention-capital.
It can at least be said that Dheepan is a change of direction for Audiard, but this comes from a director whose whole career consists in nothing but changes of direction, and whose auteurist signature could best be defined with Macbeth’s description of life: “full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” (1) This time around, the focus is on a Tamil Tiger guerrilla fighter, the eponymous Dheepan (played by a former Tiger cum novelist, Jesuthasan Antonythasan), who, as his militia is crushed by a ruthless Sri Lankan state, manages to flee to France on a fake passport, but has to bring with him a fake wife (Yalini) and daughter (Illayaal) in order to convincingly pull off the subterfuge. After selling trinkets in the tourist hotspots of Paris, Dheepan finds a job as a caretaker of a decrepit tower block in a part of the banlieue known only as “Le Pré”, and begins to establish a life for his phony family. Violent gangs, however, control the project’s unfinished building across the courtyard, and here we have the singular, presiding idea of Audiard’s film: that France’s cités, bastions of economic privation and internecine tribal skirmishes, are warzones no less vicious and harrowing than genuine conflict areas such as Tamil Eelam. Such a parallel is, at least, a stimulating proposition, but the film mainly trains its focus on the contours of Dheepan’s psyche, as, beginning to blur fact and fiction, he comes to view Yalini and Illayaal as his genuine kin.
Oh sensitive reader, I know you may find it incommodious to hear tell of a film’s denouement – a widespread predisposition that in the digital age has come to be redressed with the shorthand warning signal “spoiler alert” – but I feel it is impossible to adequately discuss Dheepan without an adumbration of its concluding moments. Is there anything more unreasonable to ask of a film reviewer than that he should avoid discussing a film’s final reel? Such a demand is about as ludicrous as prevailing upon an art critic writing about a portrait to withhold from discussing the subject’s nose. In any case, Audiard closes his film with the protagonist embarking on a bout of vigilante-style retribution, in order to rescue his mock spouse from the clutches of the ominous gang-members marauding around the estate. Suddenly, Dheepan’s guerrilla skills, which had lain dormant while he had focussed his energies on custodial work, come flooding back to him, who dispatches his adversaries and rescues the damsel in distress with consummate ease, in a scene which inevitably recalls Taxi Driver in constituting an indiscernible zone hovering between diegetic reality and wish-fulfilment fantasy. Perhaps, however, the film’s most incendiary image – if subtly so – comes at the very end of Dheepan: having successfully escaped the unabated inferno of outer Paris’ migrant belt, the new family is welcomed into the paradisiacal surrounds of suburban Britain. Are the receptions that transcontinental refugees find in the two countries so wildly disparate (and to the disfavour of France in comparison to its Anglo-Saxon neighbour)? Audiard seems to suggest so.
While Dheepan drew a muted response from critics, Todd Haynes’ first feature since 2007’s I’m Not There seemed to attract nothing but unqualified praise from the press corps amassed on the Croisette. Was there anyone at Cannes who was not dazzled by Carol? Well, me, as it happens. Haynes’ tale of lesbian love between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, unfolding within the sexually repressive social backdrop of 1950s America, left this critic decidedly lukewarm. Oh, I am well aware that, as an Australian, it is almost a certifiable act of national treason not to consider La Blanchett’s every last performance as a new zenith in the art of thespianism, and yet I remain a staunch non-convert to her cause. Here, everything appears subordinate to the mission of stamping Blanchett’s acting supremacy on the film: even her husband’s name, Harge, despite originating in the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt on which Carol is based, seems specifically designed to accentuate her character’s archly north-eastern upper-class enunciation. Blanchett was immediately widely tipped for the actress prize (although, in accordance with the arcane rules governing Cannes’ award-giving, this would have precluded the film from the Palme d’or), but, satisfyingly, the jury instead graced Rooney Mara with their favour (the young actress winning ex aequo with Mon Roi’s Emmanuelle Bercot), whose rendition of Carol’s younger lover Thérèse is more subtly beguiling than Blanchett’s dramatics. Beyond the performances, Haynes admirably recreates the stultifying rigidity of the US’s post-war era – a period which, in light of the similar setting of his Sirk-homage Far from Heaven (2002), is evidently a pole of attraction for the filmmaker – but the result is, inevitably, an icy, stiff film, where premeditated aesthetic perfection trumps lively spontaneity. In other words, Carol is a perfectly respectable piece of cinema, but it is not what I go looking for in the seventh art.
Thankfully, there were other films on offer this year that did slake my thirst for outstanding cinema. Curiously, however, they were more often than not to be found outside of the competition than in. This is a turnaround from recent years, in which a weakened Director’s Fortnight has struggled to hold its ground against a bullish Official Selection. Frémaux had seemed, of late, to have mastered the juggling act of satisfying the festival’s various stakeholders while also leaving the more cinephilically minded among us content with the fare on offer. In 2015, however, there were more fumbles than catches, not the least of which was the astonishing decision to relegate Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s extraordinary Rak ti khon kaen (Cemetery of Splendour)to the Un Certain Regard section, an almost unprecedented snub to a former Palme d’or winner, and one which was further clouded by rumours – impossible, I admit, to substantiate – that Frémaux had promised the Thai filmmaker a competition slot in order to stave off interest from rival festivals, only to renege on his word safe in the knowledge that Weerasethakul would respond with typically Buddhist phlegm.
Nonetheless, highlights within the competition could be found. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s turn to the wuxia film with The Assassin was long anticipated by fans of the Taiwanese auteur: as with Haynes, he was unveiling his first feature in eight years (after 2007’s underwhelming Le Voyage du ballon rouge [Flight of the Red Balloon]), and the end result was the only competition film to vie with Carol for untrammelled critical approbation: the two films tied for first in the Screen International jury grid (a reliable litmus test), well ahead of any other rivals. As opposed to Carol, however, I can only assent to the accolades heaped onto The Assassin. Reviewers were quick to pin it with the label “beautiful”, which may be somewhat lacking in analytical acuity, and betray an attitude of surrender at The Assassin’s eminent inscrutability, but rarely has a film so defiantly warranted such an appellation. Every image, every on-screen movement, every element within the frame, bellows out the sheer, unadulterated formal beauty of Hou’s film: a particularly striking shot of a fulvous sun setting behind a pitch-black forest, the first colour image of the film after a black-and-white prologue, is only one of the compositions that has been vividly etched into my mind. It is true that the plot is difficult to discern from an initial viewing of the film – in broad brush strokes, a female assassin in ninth-century China (played by Taiwanese star Shu Qi) is tasked with returning to her home of Weibo in order to kill her cousin and former betrothed, the governor Tian Ji’an – and many who saw the film at the festival expressed the need for a repeat screening to further tease out its intricacies (those who did manage the feat within a packed festival schedule generally came out even more spellbound by Hou’s work). But even seeing it once, the consummate control over filmic rhythm and mise en scène in what could have easily been an uninspired genre exercise is decisive proof, for any who may have doubted, of Hou’s continued mastery of the medium.
Across the Formosa Strait, Jia Zhang-ke retorted to HHH’s view of the Middle Kingdom with Shan he gu ren (Mountains May Depart), a vision of contemporary China that solidifies his status, in my view, as the Balzac of the Chinese industrial revolution. Engels said that he learnt more about French society from the novelist’s writings than he did from “all the historians, economists and statisticians of the period together”, and the same can be said about Jia’s cinematic œuvre in relation to the 21st century’s new superpower. And although it seems not so long ago that Jia was seen as a precociously young talent in world cinema (stemming from his 1997 debut Xiao Wu, made when he was 27), it may now be more appropriate to consider him an elder statesmen on the festival circuit: this was certainly the impression I garnered from the tranquil wisdom emanating from his face during the emotional reception of his new film at its gala screening. Perennial muse Zhao Tao extends her range here by playing a namesake character across three time periods – 1999, 2014 and 2025 – as she breaks with her teen sweetheart Liang to embark on an ultimately unsatisfying relationship with the nouveau riche coalmine owner Jinsheng, and bears the latter a son (named Dollar) who will migrate with his father to Australia, leaving an emotionally broken Tao behind. The ternary chronology also allows Jia to more trenchantly probe the upheavals of China’s breakneck economic development, the most fascinating results of which come in the faintly surreal third section of the film, which tracks Dollar’s life in a futuristic Australia, and which for the most part was received with bemusement by Cannes journalists, who carped at the unnatural English spoken in these scenes. For once, however, the estranged, artificial cadences of the diction are justified by the film’s diegesis. Shot mostly in Perth, the concluding scenes of Mountains May Depart are in fact set in the imaginary metropolis “A-City”, which, almost entirely populated by Chinese migrants, is clearly intended to be a kind of Chinese colony within Australia. Jia was reportedly inspired by seeing the burgeoning Chinese diaspora during a jaunt down under for the Melbourne film festival in 2013, but here he pushes the idea further: an ascendant China in a globalised world will pursue its dominance not merely through financial investment, but also through planned settlements in otherwise sparsely inhabited realms, siphoning off its large population to further entrench its economic clout. Despite the geopolitical implications of its advent, A-City comes across as a benign, bland locale, rather like the Los Angeles of Spike Jonze’s Her (which was, ironically, filmed in Shanghai), with its materially comfortable, technology-engrossed citizens engulfed by an overpowering sense of anomie.
In the competition’s other unambiguously outstanding film, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos – hot on the heels of Kynodontas (Dogtooth, 2009) and Alpeis (Alps, 2011) – similarly presents us with an English-speaking dystopian future. The Lobster is shot in Ireland, but the film takes place in an unnamed society which has deemed being single a crime. Such an edict may well prompt trigger hair analogies with our present-day world of dating apps and matchmaking reality shows, but its resonance runs much deeper than that: even ancient Rome was known to enact strict anti-celibacy laws, and what society has not developed mechanisms to pressure its members into coupledom? In The Lobster’s world, however, the recalcitrantly solitary are taken to a remote hotel, where they must find a matrimonial partner within 45 days on pain of being transformed into an animal of their choosing (the mechanics of this metamorphosis are left unexplained). Colin Farrell, sporting a “dad bod” and soup-strainer moustache recalling Joaquin Phoenix in Her (decidedly a blueprint for contemporary renditions of dystopia), finds himself caught in this detention system after being left by his wife, and after an unfruitful dalliance with a sociopathic fellow inmate, escapes into the woods and joins a group of militantly celibate rebel fighters led by Léa Seydoux (who bans sexual relations within their ranks), but – oh the irony! – falls in love with guerrillera Rachel Weisz. The second part of the film is denuded of most of the satirical bite of the first half, and is correspondingly weaker, despite being in the service of a deeper philosophical point than the film’s initial premise may have suggested: not merely that enforced singlehood is just as bad as mandatory matrimony, but that radical movements against social injustice often end up creating a mirror image of the oppression they struggle against. In general, the bracingly dark absurdism of Lanthimos’ Greek films has survived intact after his transition to Anglophone filmmaking (a hurdle that has impeded so many other cinéastes): here the stilted dialogue was of a piece with the quasi-Brechtian distantiation that pervades the entire film, and its dry delivery provided for some of the most caustic humour of the festival. (2)
Despite these triumphs, this year’s edition was another instantiation of the perennial lament that the competition at Cannes does precious little to foster new filmmaking talent. Those looking for new directorial discoveries are best advised to search elsewhere – whether in different sections at Cannes, or different festivals altogether. The main exception to this rule came with Nemes’ Son of Saul. The former assistant to modernist luminary Béla Tarr opted to tackle the theme of the death camps for his debut feature, a choice whose audacity has perhaps been diluted by the deluge of Holocaust films to have washed over our screens in recent years. Perhaps more bold was the resolute choice not only to shoot on 35mm, but to have the film projected on the same format. (3) Hand in hand with this choice, it seems, was Nemes’ aesthetic predilection for roving long-takes stretching up to the 10-minute mark (the erstwhile threshold for a continuous shot in the cinema), which evinced the cinematic lineage not only of Tarr but also, reaching further back into the gene pool of Hungarian cinema, Miklos Jancsó’s 1960s films. The titular Saul is a member of a Sonderkommando unit in an unnamed camp who chances upon the dead body of his illegitimate son while cleaning out a gas chamber, and spends the rest of the film in a vain attempt at giving his offspring a customary Jewish burial – including, improbably, a Rabbi to preside over the ceremony. By engaging in his mad pursuit, however, this modern Antigone frequently endangers not only himself but also a great number of his fellow inmates with the ever-present possibility of being butchered to death by the watchful camp guards, and the stakes are further raised when the prisoners carry out a Sobibor-style uprising. As a more politically aware detainee says to Saul, aghast that he would jeopardise their planned insurrection for the sake of his deceased child: “You’ve abandoned the living for the sake of the dead.” While Nemes relentlessly keeps the laconic, impassive Saul in close-up, the camera following his movements in a manner not too dissimilar to its counterpart in the Dardennes’ Rosetta, I could not help but feel that a far more interesting film was taking place in the background of every shot, as a genuine resistance movement against the unparalleled barbarism of the Nazi camp-system is hatched.
Three other films in competition represented “promotions” for their directors, who had all had their previous outings featured in other sections of the festival, but the results were uneven at best. After impressing with Oslo 31. august in 2011’s Certain Regard, hopes were high for Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs. The young Norwegian auteur was able to marshal Jesse Eisenberg, as young sociology professor Jonah Reed, Gabriel Byrne as his father Gene, a high school teacher and failed actor living in suburban New York, and Isabelle Huppert as his mother, a self-righteous war photographer named, umm, Isabelle Joubert, who dies in a car crash. (4) The surviving family members keep the fact that this death was in fact a suicide from emotionally unstable younger son Conrad, but a New York Times profile by Isabelle’s colleague and former lover threatens to blow their cover. Despite an aesthetic approach that is outwardly similar to Trier’s previous film, Louder than Bombs does not live up to its predecessor’s promise. Where Oslo elicited a warm empathy with its characters, the new film has such a gelid detachment from its subject matter that the work comes across as positively cadaverous.
Mexican Michel Franco similarly attempts to cross over into American territory in his sophomore effort Chronic. Actor Tim Roth, it transpires, was so taken with Después de Lucía (After Lucía) – which featured in the 2012 Certain Regard, for which Roth was a juror – that he signed up to star in Franco’s follow-up. Here he plays a palliative care nurse who has an unfortunate tendency to cross the boundaries with his dying patients, to the extent that he even adopts their personas when interacting with strangers. Fired from his job after some claims of sexual harassment against an elderly male patient, Roth begins freelancing, and eventually agrees to administer a cancer sufferer’s planned euthanasia (it is revealed that he did the same for his sick son at some point in the past). Once the deed is done, however, Franco’s film reaches an impasse, which is only resolved through the ironic deus ex machina: Roth, out jogging, is hit by an SUV and instantly killed. Oops, there I go again, ruining the ending for you all. But if we are to read Chronic’s denouement as more than merely a neat solution to the script’s structural stalemate, then the broader implications are highly contestable: the only way this ending can be coherently explained as anything other than a random, out-of-the-blue occurrence is by viewing Roth’s character as being punished by the Gods of fortune for his unholy act of assisted suicide. Thus, the film is either logically defective or politically abhorrent. Take your pick.
Deficiencies also afflicted Justin Kurzel’s take on Macbeth, the Australian filmmaker returning to the Croisette after Snowtown graced Critic’s Week in 2012. Filmed entirely in the UK, it was nonetheless the closest that Antipodeans at the festival could get to claiming a competition title as one of their own. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard play the regal couple, and both make plucky attempts to wrap their lips around the Scots-inflected iambic pentameters of the source text, most of which is pared back in favour of abstract imagery and extended fight sequences. Kurzel is aided in his Shakespeare adaptation by some evocative cinematography of the forbidding Scottish heathland that served as the shooting location, but otherwise there is little to suggest a particularly original or eye-opening slant on the tragedy. If Kurzel had wanted a Shakespearean pretext for the poetically tinged violence that he so clearly relishes, perhaps Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus may have been better matches. As it stands, the evidence on offer in his rendition of Macbeth shows little else than that the $170 million video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed he has signed up to may well be the perfect project for Kurzel (and I mean this in both a positive and a negative sense).
For cinematic splendour at this year’s festival, then, it was highly advisable to make forays away from the Théâtre Lumière. With new films by Miguel Gomes, Philippe Garrel and Arnaud Desplechin, Éduard Waintrop’s Quinzaine was unusually blessed with big-name auteurs, and none disappointed. In fact, Gomes’ 381-minute, tripartite opus As mil e uma noites (Arabian Nights) was, in this critic’s opinion, the single greatest new work unleashed at Cannes in 2015. Yes, its monumental nature, requiring deft scheduling from the diligent festival-goer, surely helped it attain such a high regard in my eyes: a film of such duration tends to either be unhesitatingly discarded or elevated to masterpiece status. But by any measure, Arabian Nights is an ebullient work, with a liberatory impetus that combines rarefied artistic ambition with a refreshing simplicity of means. Gomes’ liberal re-working of the literary compendium retains Scheherazade and the orientalish archaisms of classical translations of the text, delivered in serene voiceovers or (particularly in the third part) lengthy intertitles, but uses the framing device (and the help of a team of journalists) to explore the social reality of his contemporary Portugal, suffering under the disastrous neo-liberal stewardship of multinational fiscal bodies. A self-reflexive prolegomenon shows the filmmaker himself, creatively paralysed by the apparent paradox between weaving tales of the fantastic and embedding oneself in politically engaged realism, but in the ensuing work Gomes manages to powerfully transcend this particular aesthetic dialectic, concocting a loose series of mini-narratives that focus on the winners and, more preponderantly, losers of Portuguese capitalism at a time of crisis.
Mingling freewheeling joy at the possibilities of cinema with barely concealed rage at the present iniquities to which his compatriots are subject, the most trenchant political critique of Gomes’ film comes in the first volume, where, after shipbuilders are shown striking for their dock to be kept open, arrogant EU apparatchiks take a potion that gives them unquenchable erections, but the director is just as happy to fly off into more surreal territory: with the colossal film featuring, at various points, exploding whales, roosters on trial for crowing too early in the morning, an elaborate court case exposing a series of bizarre thefts that leads to the judge condemning all of society for its loss of moral fibre, and a magically lensed episode purporting to depict the Baghdad of antiquity (modern Marseille handily stands in for the ancient city). At other times – stories of an elderly couple who, determined to go through with a suicide pact, have to find a safe home for their dog, and a long sequence on impoverished Lisbon chaffinch trappers that closes the work – Gomes reverts to near-documentary levels of kitchen sink social realism. Despite these apparent disparities, Arabian Nights retains a core, inimitable stylistic unity, which instils even the most guarded spectator with an irrepressible desire not just to watch cinema, but to live it.
A similar sensation was aroused in me by Garrel’s L’Ombre des femmes (In the Shadow of Women). As with his previous work, La Jalousie, Ombre clocks in at a brisk 70 minutes, is shot by stalwart Renato Berta on widescreen black and white 35mm (monochromatic stock is chosen because it works out cheaper, Garrel claims), and shows modern-day Paris in an abstracted, almost atemporal light. Aficionados of Garrel’s œuvre – which stretches back to the late 1960s, as attested by the first public screening of the May ’68 film Actua 1 prior to Ombre – will not be surprised to hear that his new work centres on a love triangle, with documentary filmmaker Pierre, engaged in a study of an aging French resistance fighter (who turns out to have been a fraud), straying from dutiful wife Manon and into the arms of comely archivist Élisabeth. The addition of veteran scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière to Garrel’s stable of screenwriters, however, led to the injection of an ironic twist to the proceedings: Élisabeth discovers that Manon, too, is having an affair and, faced with their mutual infidelity, the couple’s marriage disintegrates. Throughout the film, however, there is a strong comedic element, which even had your humble correspondent seeing parallels with Shakespeare’s comedies. When I put the question of a possible influence to Garrel at the post-screening Q&A, however, the legendary filmmaker merely replied with a shrug and a monosyllabic response in the negative, and after a later question also raised the issue of the film’s unexpectedly humorous side, he explained that this was in fact a repression mechanism on the part of the audience for coping with material that hits too close to home.
After the tepid Jimmy P. (2013), Desplechin’s Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (My Golden Years) represents a return to form, here achieved by the tried and true method of providing an origin story to one his most beloved characters, Paul Dédalus from Comment je me suis disputé (ma vie sexuelle) (My Sex Life, or How I Got into an Argument, 1996). The three memories of the film’s (French) title, however, all of which are told from the perspective of a present-day Paul holed up by French border police after returning from field work in Tajikistan, are unevenly weighted: “Enfance” and “Russie” are mere vignettes, while “Esther”, charting the teenaged Paul’s early relationship with his troubled inamorata, takes up the bulk of the film. Pursuing his studies in ethnography in Paris, Paul labours to satisfy Esther’s emotional needs, which grow more and more intense the more the two drift off towards mutual infidelity – although, as Desplechin’s earlier film showed, it would take much longer for the couple to definitively sever ties. In the mean time, the filmmaker is able to craft an endearing portrait of France in the late 1980s and early 1990s – when the world was, both politically and technologically, a much less connected place than it is now – and also unearths a batch of winsome young actors who will no doubt be talents to watch in coming years.
Un Certain Regard, which like the competition is Frémaux’s domain, has been engaged in a perennial tussle with the Quinzaine for titles not deemed suitable for a competition slot, and this year seems to have seen a swing of the pendulum: as the fortunes of Waintrop’s section have risen, so has the strength of Frémaux’s sidebar subsided, after several years of being in the ascendancy. Nonetheless, it could still showcase two new Romanian features (this particular new wave as yet shows no signs of ebbing): Comoara (The Treasure) by Corneliu Porumboiu and Un etaj mai jos (One Floor Below) by Radu Muntean. Of the two, Porumboiu’s work was by far the more stimulating, and makes a solid case for him to be considered the pre-eminent figure of contemporary Romanian cinema. Recounting the efforts of Costi and Adrian, two mild-mannered middle-aged men, to locate a treasure trove buried by the latter’s great-grandfather in his back garden before the communist takeover in 1947, Porumboiu’s new work further hones his stylistic trademarks: most notably the sedate pacing and dry, observational humour focussing on life’s minutiae, a comedic bent that I have previously likened to the work of Larry David. (5) In a notable turn, Porumboiu worked in digital for the first time, but his preoccupation with truly cinematic questions was just as much in evidence here as it was in earlier works such as Politist, adjectiv (Police, Adjective, 2009) and Când se lasa seara Bucuresti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, 2013). As Costi, Adrian and a slightly shady accomplice they have roped into their cause sweep their garden with metal detectors, it was not a huge leap of logic to see the devices as a metaphor for the cinema. Notably, the brand new detector can locate metal up to 30m below ground, whereas the depth the old apparatus could plumb was limited to two metres. If the cinema is a machine for delving beneath the surface appearance of earthly phenomena, does this mean that digital is a greater tool than the old medium of celluloid ever was? The film leaves the question open, as the trio of treasure-hunters never definitively abandon the vintage appliance.
Un Certain Regard’s primary objective should – I repeat, should – be to unearth new filmmaking talent rather than confirm the prowess of established figures, and there were indeed some bright spots among the unheralded works on offer, including the Colombian José Luis Rugeles Gracia’s look at a teenaged girl’s involvement in the FARC rebel army in Alias Maria – a work that was unjustifiably overlooked in the wake of Dheepan’s treatment of similar subject matter – and Iranian newcomer Ida Panahandeh’s affecting relationship film Nahid, which shows that, whatever else might be thought of the Islamic Republic, it at least has fertile social conditions for good classical drama (much like Europe in the 19th century or the US in the mid-20th century). The Ethiopian film Lamb (Yared Zeleke) was also a surprisingly accomplished work, affording insight into a country that is all too often subject, in Western eyes, to a narrow compass of clichés. All these films, however, were distinctly overshadowed by Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, the towering achievement of Un Certain Regard. Cemetery may not quite reach the sublimely oneiric heights of Uncle Boonmee,but it is still an extremely powerful film. Weerasethakul’s stalwart actress, Jenjira Pongpas Widner, plays a nurse working at a northern Thai clinic housing military personnel who are afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness. In spite of her marriage to an American ex-pat, Jenjira strikes up a sensual friendship with one of the soldiers, Itt, who drops in out and of consciousness, and then proceeds to explore the ruins of an ancient temple with two long-dead deified princesses. As with his earlier work, Weerasethakul delivers an immersive, enigmatic film that imaginatively explores issues of temporality, memory, consciousness and – a little more mundanely – political history, and if his taste for the surreal is a little more curbed in this film than in prior outings, he nonetheless injects it with a dose of mesmerisingly opaque imagery, which includes an amoeba-like object floating across a cloudy sky, a transfixed Jenjira staring into space ahead of her in the film’s closing shot, and, in what is perhaps Cemetery’s signature image (a counterpart to the red-eyed monkey ghost of Boonmee), the tube-shaped multicoloured mood lamps that are used to manipulate the somnolent soldiers’ dreams.
The idea that there was no space in the competition for such an undeniable masterpiece was made all the more preposterous by the relatively high number of flops in this year’s selection. Despite the bona fides of its director, Gus van Sant’s The Sea of Trees was howled down by a raucous chorus of boos at its inaugural press screening – the vociferously negative reaction from the assembly of critics enough to dissuade me from attempting to catch the film at a later opportunity – while among the French films Mon Roi (Maïwenn Le Besco), Marguerite & Julien (Valérie Donzelli, from a screenplay originally intended for Truffaut), La tête haute (Standing Tall, Emmanuele Bercot) and Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux) found few scribes leaping to their defence. Audiard’s Palme d’or winner aside, the most laudable member of the bloated Gallic contingent was, surprisingly, Stéphane Brizé’s La loi du marché (The Measure of a Man), a sensitive and ultimately moving look at a middle-aged man struggling through a bout of long-term unemployment, who is then vexed by an entirely different quandary (of a moral order, this time) when he finds work as a security guard. Adhering to an utterly appropriate quasi-documentary naturalist method, the film is most noticeable for star Vincent Lindon’s ability to seamlessly blend into the otherwise entirely non-professional cast as he stoically battles against the various humiliations meted out to the jobless and those in low-paid casual employment alike.
Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, meanwhile, both met with a divided critical response. While some warmed to the two films, I found them to be abject examples of non-cinema. Sicario, with its barely credible plot, risible dialogue and politically dubious treatment of the US state’s sanguinary attempts to stem the flow of drugs over the Mexican border, does not even warrant a detailed take-down. The situation is different for Sorrentino’s new film, however, coming as it does in the wake of the Best Foreign Language Film statue at the 2014 Oscars for La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). Certainly there is little that would immediately suggest that the film’s premise is entirely lacking in potential. Two aging artists, composer Fred (Michael Caine) and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel) retreat to a Swiss mountain resort to address their respective states of aesthetic deadlock: Fred has put a definitive end to his career, while Mick is struggling to work on the screenplay for his latest film with a team of inane Gen Y-ers. In the resort they meet a young actor (Paul Dano) preparing for a role as Hitler, an unnamed corpulent Argentine ex-footballer who is obviously a cipher for Diego Maradona (for the Neapolitan Sorrentino, Maradona is pretty much equivalent to God), Miss Universe (whose brief scene seems chiefly designed to be to furnish a suitably prurient promo shot for the film’s poster) and a barely-fictionalised Jane Fonda, who refuses to work on Keitel’s film. The only problem – and it is, alas, an insurmountable one – is that Sorrentino is a cinematic anti-Midas: everything he touches turns to shit. So it is in this film, in which virtually every decision in terms of framing, editing, sound design and narrative construction is inevitably, in some way, the wrong decision, resulting in a cacophonic ode to aesthetic decrepitude. Certainly, Sorrentino at least seems to have a whiff of his own cinematic fraudulence, given that he is content to pummel the audience with film after film focussing on artistic decadence – a thematic obsession which is more than a little spurious, given that he has never actually reached any lofty aesthetic plane from which to fall in the first place. Why his films seem to have an iron grip on a competition berth is a truly bewildering puzzle; one can only assume it was a sick prank played on unsuspecting festival attendees by a mischievous programmer that has now snowballed out of control.
The fact that Sorrentino’s film was largely in English, with an all-Hollywood A-List cast, only seemed to emphasise the film’s desultory nature (at one point, Keitel jumps to his death out the window, but the act barely elicits an emotional ripple), although to be fair Sorrentino had much fewer problems with the langue de Shakespeare than many of the other foreign-films-made-in-English that made their bows at Cannes. Fellow Italian director Matteo Garrone’s Racconto di racconti (Tale of Tales) was more egregiously afflicted with this syndrome, with wince-inducing lines of dialogue such as “Be less mysterious!” (delivered by Salma Hayek) and “It’s your royal highness, you know” (Vincent Cassel). The digital effects-laden adaptation of 17th-century Italian fairy tales culled from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone is a sharp swerve away from the contemporary realism of Gomorrah (2008) and Reality (2012), but the film ultimately comes across as an oleaginous CGI Euro-pudding, with Garrone never quite sure exactly how high to crank the camp-o-meter at any given moment.
In light of the fact that Nanni Moretti’s Mia madre – a relatively undistinguished addition to his corpus – also roped in an American actor (John Turturro) and had substantial amounts of dialogue in English, pandering to the forces of globalised cultural homogeneity seems to now be the Italian film industry’s main strategy for resurrecting its fortunes after its historic collapse in the 1980s. Fortunately, it seems that Japanese cinema – which suffered a similar demise after a lengthy golden age – is taking the opposite path with the auteurs it has nurtured in recent years. Three of them – Naomi Kawase (An), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kishibe no tabi [Journey to the Shore]) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (Umimachi Diary [Our Little Sister]) – had titles in the Official Selection, and all seemed to scream their national specificity, a quality that was accentuated by the traits the three films had in common: sedate pacing, a cinematography dominated by creamy pastels, an attuned attention to nature (and particularly the passing of the seasons), signature motifs such as the omnipresent electric trains, cherry blossoms, and pokey corner restaurants, and characters who are, by and large, tranquilly reasonable and kind-hearted. Indeed, seeing all three in quick succession can make it tricky to tell the films apart – a fact which made the relief of witnessing the lurid violence of Takashi Miike’s vampire-gangster film Yakuza Apocalypse in the Quinzaine all the more welcome (Miike’s work being the generic flipside to the national cinema developed by his compatriots). As anachronistic as this may sound, between the transnational uniformity of the “Italian” tendency in world cinema and the recalcitrant distinctiveness of the “Japanese” current, I unconditionally prefer the latter, and would go so far to say that the future prosperity of film festivals depends on its continued survival.
Beyond the four main sections of the festival, the hors compétition screenings at Cannes this year were of particular interest. George Miller’s eagerly awaited sequel to the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road (the fourth part of the trilogy, as it were) sucked up a lot of the critical oxygen on the festival’s opening days before being unleashed on a global audience of billions (well, tens of millions at the very least), while Woody Allen trotted out his new film Irrational Man, centring on a Kierkegaard-reading philosophy professor at a Rhode Island liberal arts college (Joaquin Phoenix), who seduces a young student of his (Emma Stone) before plotting a Raskolnikov-style murder – wait, why do I feel like I’ve seen this film before? More unexpected fare came from Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, which, with its remarkable access to her home video footage, has the merit of drawing a great deal of sympathy for a singer whose drug use had become a late-night talk-show punchline until her seemingly-inevitable death at age 27.
The great talking point among the special screenings, however, promised to be Gaspar Noé’s 3D sex film Love, which, evidently purpose-built for Croisette scandal (Noé had earlier declared that the film would “give boys a hard on and make girls cry”), premiered to an excitable midnight-movie crowd at the Théâtre Lumière, in a screening which didn’t finish till nearly 3am. Noé’s film at the very least has the merit of being a rarity in the history of cinema. For Love is a work almost entirely dedicated to the penis. It is the penis of male lead Murphy that is the central character of Noé’s film, and it correspondingly garners more screen time, I would wager, than any other male member in the history of Cannes. We watch Murphy’s cock change moods, from despondent flaccidity to ebulliently erect euphoria (and back again), and we follow it as the organ prowls around Paris in search of a suitable partner, or recedes into its shell once the sad reality of monogamous domesticity hits home. In what is obviously the film’s landmark moment, we even watch the penis hurl semen at our faces in eye-popping 3D – a groundbreaking use of the technique rivalling anything Godard was able to achieve in last year’s Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language). In comparison, however, to the captivating personality of his prick, the ostensible protagonist of the film is a bumbling, dull-witted appendage, who looks and sounds as if he hails from Meth County, California, but is inexplicably in Paris studying to become a filmmaker, and who loses his girlfriend Electra after nonchalantly impregnating a blonde 16-year-old pro-lifer. As with Enter the Void, Love is a vexing work: for all its many faults – shockingly ham-fisted acting (even by the standards of a porno film), dialogue replete with faux-existentialist banalities, grating winks to the audience and Noé’s friends in the movie business, and, above all, the moronic, self-absorbed characters for whom it is difficult to develop even a modicum of empathy – the film at least exhibits a genuine capacity for creating an unsettling mood through its manipulation of audiovisual tonality, and in the end, perhaps the most shocking thing about the film’s sex scenes (which only, after all, comprise about 40% or so of screen time) is the matter-of-fact manner in which the coital act is depicted.
I wouldn’t, however, want to end my report-back from the Croisette on this mucilaginous note. Thankfully, then, I can give word of a screening that, for me, at least, and, I should hope, the merry band of cinephiles who were with me that evening in the Salle Buñuel, constituted the true highlight of the festival. Soon after Manoel de Oliveira’s quietus two months ago, reports surfaced of a 1982 film he had made with the proviso that it could only be publicly shown after his death. Gratifyingly, the Cannes Classics sidebar took the film – sight unseen, apparently – and international audiences were able to watch it for the first time. (6) Those who came to pay homage to the Portuguese filmmaker of legendary longevity were not disappointed. Visita ou memórias e confissões (Visit, or Memories and Confessions) was made with the most sparing of means and straightforward of conceptual devices: a camera roams through the musty corridors of the Oliveira mansion, accompanied by two philosophically-inclined ghostly voiceovers, before hitting upon the man himself, who proceeds to give a monologue to the camera. Despite what many had expected, there was little in the film by way of shocking revelation; instead, Oliveira talks about his family background (his forebears owned a mid-sized factory which was passed onto him), recounts his brief time spent in a detention cell during the Salazar dictatorship, and relates his broader views on love, beauty and virginity. Most touchingly, Oliveira even discusses his feelings for his wife, a dutiful and supremely patient companion to a filmmaker whose career didn’t kick into gear until his seventies. Throughout all of the bombast and bluster that characterise Cannes, this slender, 68-minute film, the result of one of the great artists of the modern era doing what comes naturally to him, reminds us of the true essence of film, and the true raison d’être of film festivals. Put simply, every film festival is a dialogue of the sentiments.
Cannes Film Festival
13-24 May 2015
Festival website: http://www.festival-cannes.com/en.html
1. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say, however, that Audiard’s œuvre is a “tale told by an idiot”, and in fact I still have a certain fondness for his early work Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, 1996).
2. If I had one minor grumble, it came at the end of the film – avert your eyes now, spoiler-averse reader! Farrell and Weisz elope from their band of guerrillas after the latter has been blinded for her infraction of its moral code; having seemingly ingested the ideology of superficial compatibility that prevails in this world, however, Weisz demands of her paramour that he, too, blind himself. In a roadside diner, she hands him a sharp knife and he heads to a bathroom. Here, he hesitates to perform the deed – and the scene fades to black. Nothing infuriates me more than this preponderant cliché of contemporary arthouse filmmaking, the ambiguously open-ended conclusion, particularly when a satisfyingly ironic option was glaringly obvious: Farrell walks back to join Weisz at their table, his eyes all-too evidently intact, and lies to his companion – whose blindness leaves her unable to discern the deceit – that he has carried out the grisly task demanded of him.
3. The death of celluloid has, it seems, been somewhat exaggerated – even after Cannes had earlier declared it would be incapable of 35mm projection after 2013. Oliveira’s film and Garrel’s Actua 1 also screened on the format, while Haynes, Gomes, Garrel (for L’Ombre des femmes) and Hou were among the directors who continued to shoot on film-stock.
4. Interestingly, Huppert also plays a character called Isabelle in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love. Perhaps the actress now has a policy of refusing any roles that are not named after herself.
5. During a press roundtable I finally managed to ask Porumboiu if Curb Your Enthusiasm was a conscious influence on his films. He had never heard of the series, the filmmaker told me, but one show he really did like – without realising David’s mutual involvement in the two sitcoms – was Seinfeld. Mystery solved!
6. The film had officially premiered at the Cinemateca Portuguesa a few weeks earlier, and had had a number of unofficial screenings for Oliveira insiders while the filmmaker was still alive.